It's rare these days for the B.C. Liberals to come up with an idea that is immediately embraced by the Leader of the B.C. Conservatives. But John Cummins says he's a fan of electing senators and would support a Liberal MLA's private member's bill to elect Senate candidates.
The embattled Liberals, shaky in the polls and losing support to the Conservatives, are hoping to draw back some of those former backers ahead of the May, 2013, provincial election.
MLA John Les, parliamentary secretary to the Premier and author of the private member's bill, is coy about its conservative appeal – "I know, from speaking to my colleagues and others, that it appeals to a variety of people" – but it's clear the legislation is reaching out to the former Reformers and Canadian Alliance members who now vote Conservative in federal elections but have sustained the B.C. Liberals provincially.
"It's not surprising that [Premier Christy Clark]is looking at this to put it in the window to appeal to the conservative core," says pollster Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research.
Mr. Les's approach would see B.C. voters elect senators for appointment by the Prime Minister, following, in general, the procedure that Alberta has adopted.
It remains to be seen how the Senate Election Act will play out, but there are a few early issues around it:
WILL IT WIN OVER CONSERVATIVE VOTERS?
Mr. Cummins likes the idea of electing senators: "It's a step in the right direction and something I support," he says.
But the former Tory MP says the Liberals' motivations are clear – and he doesn't think their plan will work.
"It's obviously playing to a certain extent to conservative supporters," he says.
However, he adds: "It's not the issue it was in the 1990s here. It's not at the forefront in the same way now. It's back of mind for a lot of conservative supporters."
Some pollsters disagree, however.
"I think this helps immensely," says Mario Canseco, a vice-president for Angus Reid Public Opinion, who has suggested Ms. Clark needs bold policies to engage voters.
He says the Liberals will impress conservative voters with the idea by showing they will move on some priorities of those on the right. "The main argument here for the centre-right voter is, 'Will you go for Cummins even though it seems that he won't get a chance to form the government?' or 'Will you stay with us?' "
When Angus Reid last polled on the issue in 2010, it found 72-per-cent support for Senate elections in British Columbia in a national online survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults.
But Mr. Nanos says this kind of B.C. Liberal outreach ahead of the next provincial election will only work if it is the first in a series of conservative-appeasing commitments.
"It's going to take more than one signal to conservative voters to get them to significantly shift," he says. "If this is it, it's not enough."
WHAT HAPPENS IF THE NDP WINS POWER?
NDP Leader Adrian Dix advocates the abolition of the Senate, so what happens if he becomes Premier next May with Senate elections a fixture of politics in B.C.?
"We'll deal with it as we will with a whole host of other pieces of leftover material that the government leaves for an incoming government," says NDP House Leader John Horgan. "That's really all I can say."
That said, Mr. Horgan doubts a Premier Dix would have to deal with the issue because he doesn't believe there's enough time for Mr. Les's bill to make it through the current parliamentary session. Mr. Horgan says the Liberals appear to be making more of a short-term bid to charm their conservative base in the looming Chilliwack-Hope by-election than looking to change how senators are elected.
WHAT ABOUT THE COST?
While presenting the bill to the legislature, Mr. Les says the Liberals hope for a "mutually beneficial agreement" to pay for Senate elections.
The cost of these votes has recently been an issue in Alberta, where more than $3-million has been budgeted this spring to elect three new senators – double the cost of a 2004 campaign.
On B.C., Tim Uppal, federal Minister of State for Democratic Reform, says in an e-mailed statement that Ottawa is encouraging provinces to hold senate elections in conjunction with provincial or municipal elections to save money.
However, he added that selection processes need to be flexible enough to "fit varying provincial realities" and Ottawa will work with provinces on them.
Aspects of the Senate Election Act, a private member's bill brought forward this week by Liberal MLA John Les:
- Elections would take place in six districts created by the legislation – Vancouver-Island, Southern-Interior, Northern British Columbia, South of the Fraser, North of the Fraser and Vancouver.
- The winner of an election would be submitted to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada so he or she could be appointed to the Senate.
- Ballots could be cast online, although the Chief Electoral Officer would have the option for non-online arrangements, including mail-in ballots, where necessary.
- Candidates would have a spending limit of $150,000 in the 60 days before the designated campaign period and $300,000 during the campaign period.
- There is a sunset clause: The act would only be in place for eight years after proclamation unless the distribution of seats in the Senate is amended to provide British Columbia with “a more balanced and equitable proportion.”